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Cave Art, by JEAN CLOTTES
Phaidon, 2008. 336 pp, 275 colour figs. hb ISBN 978-0-7148-4592-0 (45)

A fair portion of the price of this book must arise from its remarkable cover, in which the letters of the title are deeply incised into the cardboard to reveal glimpses of a photo beneath. It is a striking effect but not, to my eyes at least, an attractive one; while the words on the spine are formed of ugly stenciled letters.

But what of the content? The author declares that the book constitutes a kind of museum, in which Ice Age portable art is accorded little attention, but which provides ‘the most comprehensive overview possible’ of parietal art. The images are presented chronologically, in three major eras, each introduced by a major ‘emblematic’ cave: Chauvet, Lascaux and Niaux. Two of these are sites in which Clottes himself has worked (Chauvet alone is granted no less than 22 pages), while the other, Lascaux, is of course the greatest decorated cave of all and cannot fail to take centre stage in a popular coffee-table book of this kind.

After a relatively brief general text about Ice Age art, the book consists entirely of a selection of pictures from a wide (though by no means ‘comprehensive’) range of sites, each photo being accompanied by notes. This is an interesting and novel approach to the subject, and there is a great deal of basic information concerning techniques, themes, styles and dating of cave art scattered through these short texts. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no way to retrieve this information except by reading the entire book, since the index contains only proper names. At a stroke this inevitably reduces the book’s potential usefulness enormously.

It comes as no surprise that Clottes’ book presents a number of opinions which he has been promoting vigorously for some years—firstly the early date for all the art of Chauvet, whereas this is very far from established, to say the least (Alcolea & Balbín 2007; Jouve 2008; Pettitt in press; Pettitt et al. in press); the idiosyncratic view that bones stuck into cracks in cave walls all indicate a desire to visit another world (p. 91); and of course the belief that ‘shamanism’ is the theory which ‘best accounts for the facts’(p. 24/5). It is baffling, and almost touching, that he should so stubbornly persist in this view when every aspect of the theory has been thoroughly refuted, and when not a single other specialist in cave art takes it seriously.

The bulk of the text and notes is perfectly sound and accurate, as one would expect from this author. Nevertheless, a number of factual errors have crept into the book. Some of these are minor, e.g. (p. 94) Les Trois Frères was discovered in 1914, not 1912; (p. 278) the Altamira cave was not discovered by Sanz de Sautuola in 1879; the cave was found in 1868, and only its art was discovered (actually by his daughter Maria) in 1879; (p. 116) it is not true that there are no figures in Lascaux beyond the Falling Horse—in fact there are a number of painted figures in the ‘méandre’ beyond the horse (e.g. see Delluc & Delluc 2008, 213), and (p. 14) nor is it true that there are no decorated caves on the Mediterranean coast of Spain—El Moro and Gibraltar exist!

However, other factual errors are more serious:

  • p. 62: The dots in Candamo Cave which were dated to more than 30,000 and to 15,000 BP by two different C14 laboratories were not different—Fortea (2002, 28) stressed that exactly the same dots were sampled in both cases, and this startling discrepancy in results still cries out for explanation.
  • p. 121: The idea that the shaft in Lascaux was the far end of a separate cave is not owed to Aujoulat, as Clottes claims; in fact this observation was put forward more than a decade ago (Bahn 1994, 5–6).
  • p. 121: Most crucial of all, the claim that carbon dioxide may cause hallucinations is utterly false (Helvenston & Bahn 2005, 72–74; Delluc 2006).

There are also a series of odd omissions in the book: for instance (p. 280) the very important fact that the famous polychrome bison of the Altamira ceiling were all carefully engraved before pigment was applied to them. For many sites, the names of scholars who have worked there are given in the notes, but for Roc de Sers no mention is made of Sophie Tymula’s remarkable study of the site that transformed our view of it. Although in the general text the cave art of England and Italy is given the briefest of nods in passing (pp. 13/14), it does not exist according to the book’s map (p. 317). Even where caves in France are concerned, one searches in vain for some hugely important and major caves such as Roucadour or Cussac, or the unique sandstone shelter of Lagrave.

And yet there was plenty of room available for these caves—or for England and Italy—to be included, because almost 25 pages at the end are devoted to a pointless miscellany of the author’s snaps of rock art around the world. Although Clottes claims that this chapter ‘reminds us that the making of images did not stop with the end of the ice age 11,000 years ago and is not restricted to Europe’, I doubt that any reader really needs such a reminder; this entire section is totally irrelevant to the book’s subject matter, and hence a waste of space.

The book’s major contribution—its most positive aspect—is the collection of large colour photographs. Most of them are excellent, but not all are well chosen—that of the clay bison of Le Tuc d’Audoubert is very disappointing; the Brassempouy ivory head featured on p. 81 is clearly a poor cast rather than the original; and the colours in the photos of Russia’s Kapova Cave (p. 207) are artificial and simply appalling. As with the superfluous shots of world rock art, the author would have done far better to make some judicious substitutions here to raise all of the images to a high level.

In terms of value for money, therefore, one obtains a big book and a fine set of large images; but, for reasons explained above, this volume does not really advance scholarship in any way, in large measure because of its structure and lack of a proper index. Presumably it was not intended to do so, and instead constitutes a decorative and attractive complement to serious studies of the subject. In short, if you know nothing about cave art, but would like some basic information and an annotated album of beautiful photos, then this is the book for you. However, if you already have some knowledge of the subject, and are keen to learn more, you will need to look elsewhere.

Paul G. Bahn

References

Alcolea González, J. J. & de Balbín Behrmann, R. 2007. C14 et style. La chronologie de l’art pariétal à l’heure actuelle. L’Anthropologie 111, 435–66

Bahn, P.G. 1994. Lascaux: Composition or accumulation? Zephyrus 47, 3–13

Delluc, G. 2006. Une vision ‘chamanique’ à Lascaux? Pas d’hallucination au CO2, pp. 68–104, in M. Lorblanchet et al., (eds), Chamanismes et Arts Préhistoriques, Vision critique. Paris: Errance

Delluc, B. & Delluc, G. 2008. Dictionnaire de Lascaux. Bordeaux: Editions Sud Ouest

Fortea Pérez, J. 2002. Trente-neuf dates de C14-AMS pour l’art pariétal des Asturies. Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Ariège-Pyrénées 57, 7–28

Helvenston, P.A. & Bahn, P.G. 2005. Waking the Trance Fixed. Louisville, Kentucky: Wasteland Press

Jouve, G. 2008. La grotte Chauvet Révélée. Editions G. Jouve.

Pettitt, P. (in press) Art and the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe: Comments on the archaeological arguments for an early Upper Paleolithic antiquity of the Grotte Chauvet art. Journal of Human Evolution.

Pettitt, P., Bahn, P. & Züchner, C. (in press). The Chauvet conundrum: are claims for the ‘birthplace of art’ premature? in P.G. Bahn (ed.), An Enquiring Mind. Studies in Honor of Alexander Marshack. Harvard: American School of Prehistoric Research Monograph

Review submitted: November 2008

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.



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